Gray's Anatomy | The Nation


Gray's Anatomy

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Even more consequential for Gray is the matter of shaping our destiny. Indeed, the essential conflict today, he maintains, is being "waged between humanists and the few who understand that humans can no more be masters of their destiny than any other animal." It is paramount for Gray that we junk the voluntarist fantasy of controlling our fate. "Epidemiology and microbiology are better guides to our future," he writes, "than any of our hopes or plans." Gray is referring here to new patterns of disease that promise, in his words, to "trim the human population." From the point of view of Gray's newfound antihumanism, the specter of calamitous epidemics spreading across the planet is nothing alarming. On the contrary, the disappearance of vast numbers of "homo rapiens" (his term of endearment for the species) would be a healthy purge of the "plague of people" that has afflicted the overburdened earth, an act of self-equilibrating eco-cleansing.

About the Author

Danny Postel
Danny Postel is Associate Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver. He is the author...

Also by the Author

There is nothing progressive about defending Russia’s role in Syria, no matter how one packages it. 

Gray even rhapsodizes about the potential of new technologies of war as population-reduction devices. The impact of this development "could be considerable," he writes. "It is not only that weapons of mass destruction--notably biological and (soon) genetic weapons--are more fearsome than before." "More," he enthuses, "their impact on the life-support systems of human society is likely to be greater."

Gray takes the "plague of people" language from one of his new gurus, James Lovelock, the author of several books outlining the so-called Gaia hypothesis. As with many neophytes, Gray delved into his new Weltanschauung with intoxicated excitement and neglected to examine the quite voluminous critical literature within ecophilosophy. Had he done so, he would have learned that Lovelock's work is almost universally regarded by green thinkers as a joke. Gaia-speak was dropped like a bad habit years ago in ecological circles.

Same for the neo-Malthusian persiflage about overpopulation. These sentiments have been around in the environmental movement for a long time--notably in the monkey-wrenching direct action group Earth First!, whose newsletter ran an article celebrating AIDS as Mother Nature's punishment to humans for their destructiveness (as well as a carrying-capacity correcting mechanism). But those views were just as quickly attacked by others in the ecology movement, most prominently by Murray Bookchin. To his credit, Earth First! founder Dave Foreman engaged Bookchin's criticisms productively and came to repudiate much of the misanthropy in his group's outlook. Their dialogue, in fact, was published in book form in 1991 as Defending the Earth, a text Gray would have done well to consult.

It isn't just intellectually shoddy for Gray to trot this stuff out now as if these debates had never taken place--it's downright embarrassing. A better editor would have assigned him a little homework about the intellectual tradition he has come to embrace.

But Gray's proclivity for notions like Gaia and his enthusiasm for apocalyptic scenarios aren't ultimately about arguments or critical reflection--which are, after all, relics of the moribund project of humanism. He's developed a visceral revulsion toward his fellow humans, a profoundly misanthropic impulse that he dresses up in the sonorous language of "biophilia."

The task for Earth-lovers, writes Gray, is not to work toward a more ecologically balanced planet but rather to look forward to a time "when humans have ceased to matter." Given this, there is no reason to dread the prospect of a posthuman future in which technology renders people obsolete. "Thinking of our bodies as natural and of our technologies as artificial gives too much importance to the accident of our origins. If we are replaced by machines, it will be in an evolutionary shift no different from that when bacteria combined to create our earliest ancestors."

I don't think I have to persuade Nation readers of the disturbing, and quite possibly disturbed, nature of this vision. Gray has outlined a program for complete political passivity. There is no point whatsoever in our attempting to make the world a less cruel or more livable place. Such matters are beyond our control--and to think otherwise is humanistic hubris. If war becomes even more ruinous, if new diseases kill unfathomable multitudes, if technology renders our bodies immaterial--so be it. The problem is not the unimaginable suffering such developments would cause, but the foolishness of humanists for thinking things could be otherwise.

Gray's long and winding ideological road has thus taken him from free-market fanaticism to "center-left" anticapitalism and now to green antihumanism. This might seem a bizarre trajectory even in a postideological age. But there is, arguably, a method in Gray's madness, a pattern to his restless shifting of intellectual gears. It could have something to do with what his old friend Norman Barry calls Gray's "philosophical promiscuity." Barry, a fellow traveler of Gray's from the Thatcher years, told Lingua Franca magazine in 2001 that even in his days as an anarcho-capitalist, Gray "was always flitting from person to person, philosopher to philosopher.... He couldn't form a steady relationship with any thinker."

And even as a devotee of free-market capitalism--what Irving Kristol once called "the least romantic conception of a public order that the human mind has ever conceived"--Gray approached his politics with euphoria. Rather than designing rational-choice models, he composed prose poems to the gods of the market. Those gods, of course, failed him. So, we see, did the gods of the center-left. Might Gray in fact set himself up for perpetual disillusionment by plunging, again and again, into ideological flings?

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.